In so many ways, it was the unlikeliest meeting. Nathanael didn't even want to meet the guy. He was just doing it as a favor to his friend. I mean, honestly? The one of whom the prophets spoke? Some self-appointed teacher from that back woods little town of Nazareth?
It turned out, though, that this guy, Jesus, at least had a sense of humor. He quipped right back-- Glad to meet you, Nathanael . . . an Israelite without deceit.
Now, it might have been a backhanded compliment. Maybe Jesus was saying he appreciated Nathanael speaking his mind--didn't take offense at the whole Nazareth comment.
But we who are overhearing this conversation realize there's a double meaning here. Jesus' calling Nathanael an "Israelite" also brings echoes of the Jacob story into the conversation. Jacob of the First Testament. Jacob, the deceiver, who would be known as Israel.
But Nathanael is an Israelite without deceit.
Well played, Sir. Score in this conversational sparring about hometowns: one all.
An unlikely beginning for a relationship.
Wait a minute, though! Nathanael's smiling, but his mind is racing.
Jesus wasn't there for the Nazareth comment. How did Jesus know what he had said? But even more--Nathanael presses further: How did he know me?
Jesus says he saw Nathanael sitting under that fig tree, but it had to be an extrasensory seeing, a spiritual seeing . . . .
So--Philip was right after all. Now Nathanael is convinced. The traditional phrases come pouring out of Nathanael's mouth. You are the Son of God. You are the King of Israel.
Jesus confirms it with yet another Jacob reference--this time to Jacob's ladder. He says, "The angels will go up and down on the son of man." That is, upon himself.
He's talking now about Jacob's experience at Bethel in Genesis 28 where heaven approached so close to earth that the inhabitants of the two realms could meet. Now in Jesus--not just in one geographical place--in Jesus, the realm of God would come that near.
It was an unlikely beginning to Nathanael's walk with Jesus, but why not? What is more unlikely than heaven touching earth?
Heaven is where love reigns. Where there is room for all God's children at the table. Where, in the words of a friend of mine, nothing's broken and no one's missing.
Not at all what earth is like. We know what earth is like. A glance through the morning paper shows us a world that couldn't be more different than God's realm of love . . . war, global warming, political gridlock, children without health care.
And yet, in Jesus, the unexpected happens. And Nathanael sees it. Heaven gets a foothold on this earth.
Sojourners' Jim Wallis says, "In Jesus, God hits the street." Nathanael--now a follower, however unlikely--will walk that street, too.
I love it that this passage comes up in the lectionary on this particular weekend. It reminds me of another unlikely beginning.
The time is 1955. The place: Montgomery, AL. The issue is forced segregation on city buses. Local pastors are gathered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church--strategizing. Rosa Parks has recently been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white person. Her trial will be coming soon.
A lot of ideas go back and forth, but nothing clear emerges. Until--the most unlikely thing. The young pastor of the church, new to town, unknown to the city fathers (and, some say, not yet intimidated by them)--a guy in his 20's--raises his hand. The boycott has a leader.
Young Rev. King, it is. A newcomer to this circle, but like Nathanael, he has this experience in Jesus of the reign of God come near and is now an ambassador of that place--that meeting of heaven and earth - inviting others to walk on that street where the reign of God has gotten a foothold.
Many years later, now very well known, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would describe his glimpse of what it looks like when the reign of God comes near. He said:
". . . one day (he said) every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low . . . and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
". . . one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. . . my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
With Martin Luther King's words, through his actions, according to his dream, we could see it, too. Because he had raised his hand, had stepped up to walk in that place where heaven and earth come near. Because he stepped up to walk with Jesus, it turned out that "one day" was unexpectedly closer than we thought.
It's hard to follow Jesus to those unexpected places sometimes. Too often the Reign of God enters our world with a cost. Dr. King knew this, too.
From the unlikely location of the Birmingham jail, he wrote about a letter he had just received from a white brother urging caution, who said:
"All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but. . . The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth."
Dr. King responded: "Such an attitude stems . . . from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually . . ." he said, "Human progress . . . comes through the tireless efforts of (persons) willing to be co-workers with God . . ."
". . . Early Christians entered a town . . . in the conviction that they were 'a colony of heaven,' called to obey God . . . Small in number, they were big in commitment . . . By their effort and example they brought an end to . . . ancient evils . . ."
" . . . The time is always ripe to do right."
Martin Luther King, who we celebrate this weekend, helped a whole generation see where the ways of heaven begin to get an unlikely foothold on this earth. He helped us remember that walking with Jesus means working for justice--revealing in our midst already a world where love reigns, a realm of God's shalom--of wholeness--where nothing's broken and no one's missing, where a table is spread and all are welcome.
I had an experience of that kind of welcome once, also unexpectedly. I was accompanying a group from my denomination's mission board on a trip to Congo. We were deep in the forest, bumping along on nearly impassable roads with a pick up and a van. Rounding a bend, we came full stop before a large tree that had fallen right across the way. We all piled out and stood there, scratching our heads.
There was a little rustle among the trees and I noticed a group of children--curious as children will be. Then I noticed their moms were with them, carrying parcels wrapped in brightly colored cloths. In a moment, some men were there as well--carrying machetes and knives--and a door, a big wooden door.
The men with the tools went straight to the tree and got to work, cutting and tugging. The others placed that door on the forest floor, and suddenly ... the door was a table. The women began to unwrap their parcels to reveal peanuts and bananas and Orange Fanta! I don't know where they got that Fanta!
They spread that feast and they invited us to partake. We were strangers on the side of the road. People of that place came out to us in our need. They spread a table, and in that act of hospitality was a glimpse of God's reign come near.
Karl Barth is supposed to have said, "When you preach, you've got to have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other." He was right. The call of Nathanael reminds us. When we walk with Jesus, we walk in those unlikely places where heaven and earth come near. In this fragmented world, we represent God's reign gaining a foothold here already, and our actions need to show it.
An act of simple hospitality in the midst of want, a hand raised to volunteer for leadership in a community witness, a tent pitched in a city park--all moments, so often unexpected--where the reign of God comes near, where we catch a glimpse of a time and place where nothing's broken and no one's missing, and a table is spread for all God's children.
May it be so.
Thank you for Nathanael's call and witness. Thank you for the witness of Martin Luther King, Jr., and all others who have been willing to walk with Jesus in that challenging place where heaven and earth come near. Give us the ears to hear the call, eyes to glimpse your reign among us, and the courage to respond and hit the street with you. In Jesus' name. AMEN.
 Martin Luther King, Jr. "I Have a Dream" Speech. August 1963. March on Washington http://www.usconstitution.net/dream.html, accessed November 6, 2011
 Martin Luther King, Jr. "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." April 1963 http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html, accessed November 6, 2011